People love (actual) books

By Midge Raymond,

Offering a book free online has proven (so far) that books aren’t yet going the way of the VHS — this AP story about Suze Orman’s book Women & Money, which Oprah made available on her web site, notes that while more than 1.1 million copies of the book were downloaded free, the traditional version is still selling — and it’s selling very well.

As Norton publisher Drake McFeely indicated, an Oprah endorsement would likely make publishers agreeable to offering free content; otherwise, they’re still wary of the free stuff hurting traditional book sales. But while it’s nice to get things for free, there’s nothing like having a real book to curl up with. (This is coming from someone who actually still has a VHS — but that’s another story.) Here’s better proof: As the AP reports, Orman’s book ranked No. 6 on Amazon.com as of Saturday, and the paper edition of “The 9-11 Commission Report,” published by Norton in 2004, spent months on the bestseller list.



It Can Happen to You…

By Midge Raymond,

This Boston Globe story is an inspiration for us all … especially those who are inclined toward self-publishing. When Brunonia Barry of Salem, Massachusetts, self-published her novel, The Lace Reader, it eventually led to a two-book deal for more than $2 million.

While self-publishing still comes with a stigma, this is beginning to change. Most writers self-publish because they can’t find a literary agent and/or publisher — but others (like Barry) do it to save themselves the agony of the search, or because they prefer to keep more of the profits. And in some cases, it’s not such a bad idea. The publishing industry is all about risk — and when an editor has a chance to buy a book that has already proven itself through reviews and buzz, it’s a no-brainer.

Still, getting there is not as easy as it sounds. As Steve Fischer, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, told the Globe, “You’re responsible for everything — you have to be author, agent, accountant, postal clerk, sales rep, publicity agent, go around to your local bookstore and find out if there is any interest.”

And time is not the only big investment. Barry and her husband spent $50,000 publishing and marketing her book before she sold it — clearly something very few authors can afford.

But in publishing, of course, anything’s possible.



The Rule of Three

By Midge Raymond,

I’m always encouraging students to do things in threes — whether it’s the number of sources to use in a 2,000-word feature or the number of times you can repeat a playful device in a short story — and this blog articulates well the many reasons that good things happen in threes. Writers, take note — it’s excellent advice for everyone from screenwriters to copywriters to novelists.



The Year in Books

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s Los Angeles Times laments the year in books, “punctuated by anxiety over the decline of many newspaper book review sections and worry that publishing, with its old-fashioned way of printing books on paper and shipping them to stores or to online services, can’t keep up with a fragmented, increasingly distracted and digital world.”

The article chronicles the closing of yet more independent bookstores and notes the apprehension in the industry over the emergence of new technologies that booksellers fear might further affect sales. Yet publishers also celebrated new books by longtime favorites, as well as the new Harry Potter.

Still, the article concludes, “Overall, as the publishing world looks back on 2007, it’s hard to reconcile the unease people feel about the business with the excitement they feel about the books themselves.” Let’s hope for better in 2008!



Good News for Books

By Midge Raymond,

This New York Times story about a children’s book, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, comes as welcome news in a time when we constantly hear about how the Web will make books obsolete. The book, which was first offered free online, has sold 147,000 copies and has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 33 weeks — despite the fact that it’s still available for free online.

The article also points out a few blogs that have turned into real-book successes (such as Post Secret) but notes that most popular bloggers have not managed to find success in print, and that many readers aren’t likely to buy a book that they can read free online. But because many children have limited access to the web, children’s books can coexist online and in print. As one reader told the Times, “There’s nothing like holding the weight and smelling the paper.”



Top 10 Blogs for Writers

By Midge Raymond,

Michael Stelzner of Writing White Papers has just listed his picks for 2007’s top ten blogs for writers — a great resource for copywriters and bloggers, and particularly for freelance writers (including beginners).

Freelance Writing Jobs is designed for writers seeking new work; Freelance Parent is written by two freelance writing moms; and Write from Home is part of a site that features paying markets, writing contests, and articles geared toward beginning freelance writers.

While these blogs lean toward nonfiction, marketing, and business writing, there’s plenty of information (and other links) for creative writers, too — such as how to write a good headline (need a title for your novel?), practicing good grammar (writing query letters to agents?), and overcoming fear of failure (enough said).

Enjoy!





Agent blog: The Rejecter

By Midge Raymond,

For writers with agent questions (and for anyone else who misses Miss Snark), check out The Rejecter (tag line: “I don’t hate you. I just hate your query letter”), a blog by an assistant at a literary agency (who says that on average, “I reject 95% of the letters immediately and put the other 5% in the ‘maybe’ pile”). While no one can replace Miss Snark, this blog offers the same inside view of an agent’s life and covers issues including advances, rejections, the latest scams, and whether a writer’s looks really do matter.



Simon & Schuster Going Green

By Midge Raymond,

Simon & Schuster announced today that it will “dramatically increase the amount of recycled fiber in the paper used to manufacture its books.” It plans to increase the level of recycled fiber in its paper from 10 percent to 25 percent or more. The company also “will endeavor to eliminate the use of paper that may contain fiber from endangered and old-growth forest areas. It has set a goal that by 2012 at least 10% percent of its purchased paper will derive from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).”

Of the 70,000 tons of paper that Simon & Schuster purchases annually, 70% of that paper contains some recycled fiber content. At current production levels, the shift to 25% recycled fiber will result in the saving of approximately 483,000 trees annually and a reduction of nearly 85 million pounds in greenhouse gases — equivalent to pulling 7,600 cars off the road each year.

This is excellent news — and I hope it’s a trend that we begin to see throughout the publishing industry.

Simon & Schuster UK is expected to adopt a similar environmental policy. You can check out the complete Simon & Schuster paper policy, plus details of other environmentally friendly actions in its publishing practices, offices, and distribution facilities, at the Simon & Schuster web site.



The American Short Story

By Midge Raymond,

In today’s New York Times Book Review, Stephen King writes that while the American short story may still be alive, it is most certainly not well.

As editor for the 2007 edition of The Best American Short Stories, King read hundreds of stories, finding that while some were very good, and some even great, most seemed to have been written for a shrinking audience of editors and teachers rather than for “real readers.” He writes, “And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next … It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.”

He includes a sadly funny scene describing his attempt to find literary magazines at his local bookstore, where he is on the ground looking at the very lowest shelves, hoping “the young woman looking at Modern Bride won’t think I’m trying to look up her skirt.”

It’s a sad and distrubing essay, mostly because he’s exactly right about the state of the audience for short stories. But I also found it inspiring, and on these points, I think he’s exactly right, too: “I look for stories that care about my feelings as well as my intellect … What I want to start with is something that comes at me full-bore, like a big, hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky. I want the ancient pleasure that probably goes back to the cave: to be blown clean out of myself for a while, as violently as a fighter pilot who pushes the eject button in his F-111. I certainly don’t want some fraidy-cat’s writing school imitation of Faulkner, or some stream-of-consciousness about what Bob Dylan once called ‘the true meaning of a pear.'”

King writes of the short story’s status, “Current condition stable, but apt to deteriorate in the years ahead.” This is where I hope he’s wrong.



Bothered by bad “punctuation”?

By Midge Raymond,

I just came across a hiliarious blog about unnecessary quotation marks on signs and other printed matter. In a way, I admire it (someone else gets as irritated as I do by bad punctuation!), and on the other hand, it’s a little frightening (no one should care this much about bad punctuation, including me).

But it’s pretty funny … and it makes clear that the owners of these signs should be concerned about more than bad punctuation. Does anyone really want to eat at a restaurant whose sign reads Open Upstairs for “Lunch” and “Dinner”? And who’s going to take seriously a sign that reads The Use, Possession and Sale of Drugs in Mexico Is Prohibited by “Law”?

If in the course of your lives you see any signs that warrant ridicule on this blog, you can photograph them and make submissions of your own. (Just in case reading the blog alone isn’t enough procrastination for us writers.)



Good-bye (or goodbye?) to the Hyphen

By Midge Raymond,

For all you Anglophile wordsmiths out there, check out this Reuters arcticle about the disappearance of hyphens from 16,000 words in the new Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

The editor of the Shorter OED, Angus Stevenson, says that the hyphen has become “messy looking” and “old-fashioned” — but actually, looks played a rather small role; the staff omitted said hyphens only after “exhaustive research.” Most hyphens were dropped from compound nouns, though Stevenson does concede that they found many instances in which hyphens are still necessary.

Formerly hyphenated words were either split into two or combined into one (in most cases, what most American writers and editors are already used to). A few examples:

fig-leaf = fig leaf

ice-cream = ice cream

test-tube = test tube

water-bed = water bed

bumble-bee = bumblebee

cry-baby = crybaby

low-life = lowlife



Writers, Be Aware

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s San Diego Union-Tribune features a story about the perils of self-publishing, this time focusing on a local publisher, Ed Johnson, whose second company has just collapsed after taking thousands of dollars from hopeful writers.

This story offers some good insight into vanity presses, toward which many writers are increasingly turning in their efforts to get published. While Johnson told the U-T that he simply went out of business, the article quotes a former employee of Johnson’s company, who said that to Johnson, the authors were “just a source of income,” and that she was instructed to tell authors who called that he was “on the other side of the building” to make it seem as if he ran a large publishing business. In reality, the “publishing house” was a one-room office in a converted motel.

Unfortunately, the stories of these would-be authors are not unusual: In these cases, they paid from $2,500 to $5,700 and never received the books they envisioned, let alone the publicity and marketing they expected. One customer did receive one copy of a “finished book” — in a spiral binder. Most received nothing at all.

The article quotes Victoria Strauss of the excellent resource Writer Beware, which aims to educate writers about the “enormous shadow industry of scammers and amateurs who prey on aspiring writers, who divert people from the real publishing industry into this shadow world of vanity publishing and fee-charging agents.”

This article is a must-read for any writer thinking about self-publishing, but writers should also keep in mind that self-publishing doesn’t have to be the nightmare that this story portrays. Publishing one’s own book can be a good choice for those with a platform and marketing savvy, those who can afford the investment, and those who realize that self-publishing is simply a matter of printing. Writers who want editing, design, publicity, distribution, and book reviews (not to mention an advance and royalties) need to find an agent and go the traditional route.



Jane Austen’s Recent Rejections

By Midge Raymond,

An AFP story offers some interesting insight into the publishing industry: The head of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, David Lassman, sent slightly disguised versions of several Jane Austen novels to eighteen editors. Not only was he rejected by all of them, but only one publisher recognized Austen’s work (in a submission that included the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice).

This says a lot about the editors who are the gatekeepers to modern literature. Among the major publishers to which these manuscripts were sent was Penguin, whose response, according to the article, was that the submission “seems like a really original and interesting read.”

Alex Bowler of Jonathan Cape, the only editor who caught on, responded, “I suggest you reach for your copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ which I’d guess lives in close proximity to your typewriter, and make sure that your opening pages don’t too closely mimic that book’s opening.”

It’s a depressing story, but if there’s some hope in it, it’s the knowledge that even Jane Austen would have a tough time getting published today (a Penguin spokesperson told AFP that the thinly disguised Pride and Prejudice manuscript “would not have been read”). Which brings me back to the same old lesson: Don’t give up.



What’s in a Font?

By Midge Raymond,

I just came across an article in Slate featuring a few good authors and their favorite fonts, which, interestingly, is something that they’ve really put some thought into.

The featured writers express an overwhelming fondness for Courier (thanks to memories of childhood and writing on typewriters). Of the writers listed here, none uses my own font of choice (Times New Roman), though Anne Fadiman writes “in an aggressively foursquare version of Times Roman” and Maile Malloy uses Times for “the look of honesty about it, no stretching or stuffing of page lengths.”

I have to admit that this little piece has made me think more about fonts than I (or any writer) should. We simply need to write. As Andrew Vachss (who uses Courier, by the way) points out, “the writing has to stand (or not) on its own.”